Time, Space, and the Virus

The Atlantic|July - August 2020

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Time, Space, and the Virus
How a pandemic transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar
By Ai Weiwei

A pandemic changes the way we see ourselves, that’s for sure. What is time? How do we use it, spend it? We make a phone call, have lunch, brew some coffee, apply makeup. Time can restart and begin anew, or it can hide entirely, get cut off, disappear. Time is more than what passes between this moment and another one, or the price required to finish a task. It seeds our imagination and slows down when we’re creatively absorbed. It spurs action and is bound up with how we press forward with life and with our resolve to make ourselves complete.

A nurse leaves a bedside, and a few days later the patient’s temperature drops and he no longer needs a ventilator. Then comes a tingling in her throat; her temperature rises, and she becomes obsessively focused on the length of her life. She remeasures her connections with her family and her society. Elsewhere in time, the politician performs his social role in the manner of a careening race car that strains to hold its balance around a curve without tipping over or crashing.

For so many others, there is no longer a something-to-do-next. Toss expectations into the memory bank! The distinction between this time and that time begins to blur. Life can go on without promises or fulfillment of duties. People who have lost their jobs have lost honor and vexation at once.


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July - August 2020